Brooke Notes: Camera Lucida


Barthes, R. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York, New York: Hill and Wang.


In an effort to discover what photography was “in itself,” French philosopher and critic wrote Camera Lucida in 1980 (3). Although not a photographer himself, Barthes was fascinated by photography, particularly in contrast to other medias like film.

In Part I, Barthes goes on a personal journey; he delves into the ontology of photography, seeking a phenomenological self-understanding. Barthes identifies the three persons (or things) interacting with a photograph: the operator, or the photographer, the spectator, or ourselves as audience, and the spectrum, or the object being photographed. From there, Barthes maps the relations between the three roles. Barthes notes how the operator must intrude upon the spectrum: “they turn me, ferociously, into an object, they put me at their mercy, at their disposal” (14). Honing on his phenomenological response to a photo (“an internal agitation, an excitement, a certain labor too”), Barthes denotes the boundary between a spectator’s studium and punctum. Barthes constitutes studium as “a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, but without special acuity” (26). In contrast, punctum refers to the “element which rises from the scene, shoots out like an arrow, and pierces me” ; demanding attention, the punctum interrupts the studium (26). In sum, photographs are subjectively meaningless until they “animate” the spectator and spark punctum within her (20).

In Part II, Barthes, noting pleasure to be “an imperfect mediator,” leaves a part of himself aside in an attempt to discover the eidios of photography (60). When viewing a personally meaningful image of his deceased mother, the Winter Garden Photograph, Barthes discovers “something like an essence” of photography (73). From there, Barthes derives the nature of photography from “the only photograph which assuredly existed for me, and to take it somehow as a guide for my last investigation” (73).

Barthes notes the codependence of the photograph and its referent, or spectrum. Photography “can never deny the thing that has been there,” and that the spectrum’s necessary presence is not metaphoric, but rather “the living image of a dead thing” (76, 79). Throughout Camera Lucida, Barthes darkly makes reference to the presence of Death (and concurrently, History) in photography. Barthes even concludes that “Death is the eidos of the photograph” (15).

Interestingly, all intextual photos in Camera Lucida have human spectrum. In order to spark punctum in Barthes, humans must be the subjects, the objects, the spectrum; they are his punctum. “Air,” as Barthes describes, is “that exboriant thing which induces from body to soul–animula, little individual soul, good in one person, bad in another” (109). Humans throughout Time and History ground Barthes’ philosophy of photography.

Barthes warns the reader of society’s concern “to tame the Photograph,” to extricate punctum (117). Barthes instead encourages the reader to pursue “the strictly revulsive moment which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy” (119).


“This fatality (no photograph without something or someone) involves Photography in the vast disorder of objects–of all the objects in the world: why choose (why photograph) this object, this moment, rather than some other? Photography is unclassifiable because there is no reason to mark this or that of its occurrences” (6).

“Most [photographs] provoke only a general and, so to speak, polite interest: they have no punctum in them: they please or displease me without pricking me: they are invested with no more than studium. The studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interests, of inconsequential task […] the studium is the order of liking, not of loving […] to recognize the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s intentions, to enter into harmony with them, to approve or disapprove of them, but always to understand them, to argue them within myself, for culture (from which the studium derives) is a contract arrived at between creators and consumers. This studium […] allows me to discover the Operator, to experience the intentions which establish and animate his practices” (27-28).

“I had to conceive […] how Photography’s Referent is not the same as a referent of other systems of representation. I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph […] Photography can never deny the thing that has been there” (76).

“The photograph possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time” (89).

“It [photography] is a denatured theater where death cannot be “contemplated,” reflected and interiorized; or again: the dead theater of Death, the foreclosure of the Tragic, excludes all purification, all catharsis” (90).

“Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it. To do this, it possesses two means. The first consists of making Photography into an art, for no art is mad […] the other means of taming photography is to generalize, to gregarize, banalize it until it is no longer confronted by any image in relation to which it can mark itself, assert its special character, its scandal, its madness […] This is what is happening in our society, where the Photograph crushes all other images by its tyranny: no more prints, no more figurative painting, unless henceforth by fascinated (and fascinating) submission to the photographic model […] one of the marks of our world is perhaps this reversal: we live according to a generalized image-reperoitore. Consider the United States, where everything is transformed into images: only images exist and are produced and consumed […] when generalized, it (the Photograph) completely de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under cover of illustrating it” (119).


  1. Can non-human spectrum spark punctum?
  2. What does punctum feel like in you?
  3. How would Barthes react to photos on social media (like Instagram)?
  4. Why camera lucida? What not camera obscura?